Zubin Mehta conducts Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9
18 Jan 2014
Ancient Voices of Children, A Cycle of Songs on Texts by Federico García Lorca for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano and chamber ensemble (28 min.)
Marlis Petersen Soprano
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (76 min.)
Marlis Petersen in conversation with Eva-Maria Tomasi (17 min.)
Bruckner shrugged it off when his contemporaries compared the D minor of his Ninth Symphony with Beethoven’s Ninth: “How could I help that the main theme occurred to me in D minor? After all, it’s my favourite key! The number nine weighed a bit more heavily on him: Beethoven is said to have rounded off his life with the Ninth, and Bruckner also bid farewell with his last symphony, choosing that word himself to describe the gently descending chorale that introduces the Adagio’s second thematic complex.
In this work – whose completed movements are among the greatest of the 19th century – Bruckner consolidates the achievements of his previous symphonies. The Ninth is also marked by strong dynamic contrasts and an indulgence in the splendours of the full orchestra. The organ-like scoring in the work suggested Gothic cathedrals to the ear of Bruckner scholar Ernst Kurth. But its monumentality, harmony and handling of dissonance – a conflict between ecstatic vision and catastrophic collapse – foreshadowed Gustav Mahler.
Before the Bruckner we hear the song cycle Ancient Voices of Children by the American Mahler admirer George Crumb. A theatrical masterpiece based on Lorca poems, it features one of the most virtuoso vocal parts in the 20th-century repertoire. An old friend of the orchestra, Zubin Mehta, will be on the podium. In Crumb’s orchestral songs, the Philharmoniker accompany soprano Marlis Petersen, who has made a name for herself not only in classical coloratura roles but also as an accomplished and sensitive interpreter of contemporary music.
Observations on Works of George Crumb and Anton Bruckner
Polyphony of Styles: George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children
“Music expresses itself. But I think it can also be coloured by extramusical things, such as a painting, a poem, an event, a person or a memory. All of this can become part of the music in a very mysterious way.” George Crumb, born in the US state of West Virginia in 1929, did not have an easy time of it at the start of his composing career with this way of thinking. During the heyday of serial music in the 1950s and 60s, there was no room for creative minds who incorporated extramusical influences into their works, particularly in Europe. Perhaps that is why Crumb’s compositions did not attract much attention in this country until later. In the United States, on the other hand, where a wide range of musical styles traditionally existed alongside each other, he ranked among the best-known contemporary composers much earlier.
Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, composed in 1970, is based on poems by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. According to the composer, he wanted to develop musical images that reflect the powerful yet strange world of Lorca’s poetry. To achieve this, he uses an unusual instrumentation which, in addition to the voices of a woman and a boy, calls for oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano, toy piano and an extensive percussion section. The mandolin is mistuned, the piano prepared, and the harp also works with distorted sounds. With this ensemble Crumb creates a myriad of unusual colours and effects which correspond to Lorca’s often unreal, exotic verbal imagery.
The work consists of five vocal pieces and two instrumental interludes. In Ancient Voices of Children Crumb expands his stylistic palette through the deliberate use of music of other cultures. Familiar elements casually encounter the unfamiliar; the past and present merge. Oriental figures are juxtaposed with flamenco rhythms, a Bach quotation on the toy piano is heard alongside distinct echoes of the music of Gustav Mahler. A polyphony of style results, in which – as in the works of Charles Ives – disparate musical materials confront each other and are combined anew.
Anton Bruckner’s “Unfinished”: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
“I have already dedicated symphonies to two earthly majesties, the poor King Ludwig, as royal patron of the arts, and our illustrious dear Emperor Franz Joseph, as the highest earthly majesty I recognize, and now I dedicate my last work to the majesty of all majesties, the dear Lord, and hope that he will grant me sufficient time to complete it and graciously accept my gift.” Anton Bruckner’s doctor passed on this comment by the composer in connection with his Ninth Symphony. If not authentic, at least it is nicely expressed; it indicates that the Ninth Symphony was very important to its composer and was intended as a kind of opus ultimum. That is also substantiated by the circumstances of its composition and the fact that in it Bruckner recalled a number of earlier works in the form of brief motivic quotations and allusions.
Bruckner began work on his Ninth Symphony in September 1887, immediately after completing the Eighth. He did not finish the first three movements until seven years later, however. He was not able to complete the planned finale but died while working on the last movement, for which only sketches exist. The long period of composition is due above all to the failure of his Eighth Symphony. When Bruckner learned of the rejection of his most expansive work by the conductor Hermann Levi, he began to rework it. Plagued by self-doubt, he then revised his First and Third Symphonies as well. Only then did Bruckner resume work on the Ninth, interrupted only by the composition of several choral works. The first movement was completed in October 1892; the Scherzo and Adagio were composed in 1893/1894. Age and illness slowed down his progress, although Bruckner continued to work feverishly on the finale until his death.
The first movement is in sonata form. Unlike his other symphonies, it does not begin with a distinctive figure that can subsequently be developed or repeated but with a group of different elements, only some of which have thematic character. This complex of motifs first explores the principal key of D minor, then immediately gives way to a chorale-like exclamation. The lyrical second theme contrasts sharply with the first, while a third theme group reveals structural similarities to the central first theme. During the movement these three thematic groups are treated separately over long stretches and develop their metamorphoses “intrinsically” so that the coda, for example, offers a peaceful, triumphant variant of the main theme. Not until the final bars does Bruckner combine characteristic elements of the main theme with the horn motif from the beginning of the movement, which is now heard in the trumpets, bringing the key thematic ideas of the movement together again.
The Scherzo displays an entirely different character. Its opening, over a C-sharp pedal point, does not lead into the principal key of D minor until more than 40 bars later and completely disregards textbook rules. The movement begins insistently, like clockwork, presenting deafening, pounding rhythms not unlike a danse macabre. In the tutti these jagged contours are intensified to almost barbaric force – like an anticipation of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, composed 19 years later. This motoric rhythm continues in the restless trio, which is not an easy-going ländler tune, as is sometimes the case with Bruckner. Instead, the tempo continues to accelerate and metric shifts dominate the musical texture. The seemingly virtuosic string sounds become strident, distorted, grotesque.
In the third movement Bruckner again increases the thematic diversity, structural proportions and timbral intensity of the symphony. It is a large-scale farewell in three sections, in which there are frequent unresolved, dissonant chords, chorale-like fanfares and harsh build-ups of sound. The main theme includes all twelve semitones of the chromatic scale, and shortly before the close, just before the E-major chorale, the music culminates in a sharply dissonant chord superimposing seven of the twelve pitches. Bruckner does not resolve this chord, however, but follows it with an eloquent pause, after which a solemn cantilena concludes the work.
In addition to this structural development, the movement also contains allusions to other works. The “Dresden Amen” from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and Richard Wagner’s Parsifal is heard, as well as a motif from Bruckner’s D minor Mass, composed in 1864. To a certain extent, the movement is thus a kind of recapitulation of an entire era that came to a close at the end of the 19th century. “It seems that the Ninth is a limit,” Arnold Schoenberg declared in 1912. “He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not yet ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter. Perhaps the riddles of this world would be solved if one of those who knows them were to write the Tenth.”
Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961; he last conducted the orchestra with Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in March/April 2012 in Berlin and Salzburg. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to Western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a new project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Marlis Petersen was born in Sindelfingen in Germany, and studied music education and singing in Stuttgart. Her first engagement in 1993 took her to the Stadtstheater Nürnberg and from 1998 to 2003 she was a member of the ensemble at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf. She has appeared on national and international stages, including the opera houses in Bremen, Hanover, Frankfurt, Munich and Geneva, the Opéra Bastille in Paris, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, Hamburg State Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the New York Metropolitan Opera. The focus of Marlis Petersen’s repertoire is classic coloratura roles – she sang, for example, the Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute) and Adele (Die Fledermaus) at the Bavarian State Opera – but she has also made a name for herself as an interpreter of contemporary music. Marlis Petersen has appeared in the premieres of works such as Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra in Berlin and Brussels, Manfred Trojahn’s La grande magia at the Semperoper in Dresden, and Aribert Reimann’s Medea at Vienna State Opera. In concert, the soprano works closely together with Helmuth Rilling and the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, and with René Jacobs. Marlis Petersen now makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.